The History of Instant Replay in the NFL – Benefit or Detriment??

Most people will agree that all tools at your disposal should be used to provide a positive outcome. Yet when do we cross the line in overusing said tool to compound issues it was supposed to address?? One of the interesting aspects of instant replay as an officiating tool has really boiled down to determining what is or isn’t a catch.

Does the NFL need all of this to figure out instant replay??

Oh sure you’ll see a replay concerning a kick returner stepping out of bounds, or if a runner’s knee/elbow touches the ground before a fumble, or even to check the ball spot before bringing out the chains for a 1st down. Its the catch that has been scrutinized to the point where we have to ask the question: When it comes to judging a catch in the NFL has instant replay outlasted it’s usefulness??

To understand the depth of the question we have to return to the growth from its genesis.

Back in the 1970s the NFL really sped up from the 3 yard and a cloud of dust days of the 1960’s as the game evolved into a speed game. With the advent of astroturf and the full fruition of the American Football League’s drafting speed at every position became commonplace. Televising the game became more sophisticated as additional and more creative camera angles brought the viewer a more immersed experience. The game had sped up but middle aged referees had not and there were spots on the football field they couldn’t get to where a well placed camera could capture the moment.

However those camera angles and instant replay could not be used to aid an official. Fans everywhere were becoming Monday Morning quarterbacks discussing blown calls the day after with their favorite teams. The talk of replay being used as an officiating tool really began during the 15 minute delay after The Immaculate Reception and the official ruling of a touchdown in the 1972 playoffs. Even the networks began to chime in showing replay after replay where the big eye in the sky told a different tale than what officials called on the field. Yet it took two huge blown calls in playoff competition that brought the issue to the rule makers.

The first occurred at the goal line in the 2nd quarter of the 1977 AFC Championship Game. The defending Super Bowl champion Raiders were down 7-3 and in need of a defensive play as Denver sat poised at the Raider 2 yard line…and then:

Denver seized the momentum on the very next play as you saw taking a 14-3 lead. They went on to dethrone the Raiders 20-17 and move on to Super Bowl XII. The buzz after the game centered on the cruel twist of fate dealt the Raiders on the blown call when Tatum hit Lytle. Grumbling from the Raider organization was met with sentiment by NBC broadcaster Dick Enberg repeating clearly the refs blew the call.

The talk hadn’t died down two years later when another play altered the course of NFL history. We had a new rivalry make it to the national level between the perennial champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the Houston Oilers. Pittsburgh beat them in the 1978 AFC Championship 34-5. It was not even close. However in the ’79 AFC Championship Game they were embroiled in a dogfight. With the Steelers up 17-10 and the Oilers driving late in the 3rd quarter, Dan Pastorini lofted a pass for Mike Renfro when…

The argument to institute replay as an officiating tool went into overdrive as this play cast a pall over most of the time leading up to Super Bowl XIV and beyond. Yet it took 6 years before the NFL would vote replay in as an officiating tool. So going into the 1986 season how long was it before it had an affect. Try just 3 plays!! The defending champion Chicago Bears were hosting the Cleveland Browns in the opener when the 1st instant replay touchdown happened:

So Browns Safety Al Gross was the 1st NFL player to score a touchdown based on a decision by instant replay. In this instance it worked. When replay is concerning the spot of the ball, or whether a player was in-bounds before sliding out of bounds recovering a fumble, or whether a receiver had 2 feet in, replay is a critical tool for officiating crews to get it right. Yet when it comes to the catch itself replay has now become the problem.

Fast forward to the catch/non catch of Dez Bryant in the 2014 playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys. In the waning moments down 26-21 and facing a 4th down, Romo lofted a pass toward Dez Bryant when apparently he caught the ball and it would be 1st and goal. Once the Packers challenged the play the controversy began.

What we received was a poor carrying out of the rule as it was written. This rule was adjusted after the 1999 NFC Championship Game when Bert Emanuel caught an apparent pass late in the game and the tip of the ball touched the ground. This was a diving play and the ball hitting the ground in the middle of the catch. We didn’t see that on the play with Bryant.

During Bryant’s catch, had he been in the middle of the field caught the ball and been hit after two steps, it would be a catch and fumble meaning he had possession. So now he catches the ball, rotates his body, cradles the football with one hand, takes several steps and dives for the goal line and the explanation was he hadn’t made a football move. This was and should have been ruled a catch once he took the two steps with no bobble of the football. Not the diving catch that the rule was written for.

This event altered the course of NFL history and forever doomed the legacy of Tony Romo and a team that could have made the Super Bowl. Yet we have to move on…

We have to quit with the Zapruder Film reenactment every time we need to review a catch with instant replay. The Chancellor of Football says we need to interpret the rules as players, coaches, and refs always have and get away from the Bob Costas wannabe lawyer types who muck this up every time a reception is discussed.

  • What is a catch? A forward pass thrown from one offensive player to another and the recipient possesses the ball.
  • A reception and possession of the ball takes place once the receiver secures it and takes two steps, goes out of bounds, or immediately tackled or touched down once their knee, elbow, or ass hits the ground.
  • Possession of the ball is securely controlling the ball with one hand or two.

That is it!! That is a catch and the rest should be left to the judgment of an official. Back during John Madden’s early years in the broadcast booth, NFL Director of Officiating Art McNally explained a Jerome Barkum touchdown by stating “One knee equals two feet.” Which translates to the play was over once the receiver was ruled down and in this instance he only had one knee in while sliding out of the endzone with a reception.

The NFL needs to get away from this stupid notion someone somewhere brought up about reviewing the receiver having possession after the play has already been called down or out of bounds. Possession the instant a play is whistled dead is over! Who cares if he bobbles it 11 feet out of bounds sliding into a table of gatorade?? Once we remove this excess from replay it will remain an effective tool. You don’t need a panel of 72″ screens and a committee to determine a catch!!

Dedicated to my late brother Michael Vincent Rojas if he were here we would still be arguing Bert Emanuel’s catch/no catch from the 1999 NFC Championship Game.

Thanks for reading and please share the article.

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5 thoughts on “The History of Instant Replay in the NFL – Benefit or Detriment??

  1. I don’t like instant replay because it hasn’t solved what it was intended to solve- egregious calls. In fact, an argument could be made that it has created egregious calls.

    Like

  2. Always seem to get an education via a history lesson in an array of sports topics. And always a great read because there’s usually something I never knew before in these articles.
    Interesting what that “Immaculate reception” play and the subsequent replays probably helped create nearly 45 years ago…

    Liked by 1 person

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